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Total Immersion: Forty-Part Harmony at Gallery 308

November 23, 2015

If you are the sort of person known to shed a tear or two in the presence of an achingly beautiful four-part harmony, then the swelling harmonies of Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century Forty Part Motet will challenge your imagination.

The piece in all its luxurious drama is playing now at Fort Mason, in a unique presentation you will not hear anywhere else. You stand in the center of a 30’ diameter circle of voices, a 360° experience with each voice emanating from a single speaker, equidistant and at ear level. Such total aural immersion is a sensation you would not get from an auditorium, with a forty-voice chorale on stage, certainly not from a CD played through a few speakers.

It is this total immersion that makes this experience so memorable, “surround sound” at the highest level. Each voice is aimed directly at you, at once distinct and masterfully blended. The waves of music wash over you; your spirit lifted and then gently settled back again.

You are not likely to have another experience like this, unless you take advantage of the free performances again and again, as I intend to do until it closes in January. Let the first time be transcendent as you stand or sit in the center of this array, go a second time to study it intellectually.

The Forty Part Motet is a 40-part choral performance of English composer, Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century composition Spem in Alium, sung by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. The performance is played in a 14-minute loop that includes 11 minutes of singing and 3 minutes of intermission. Installation designed and installed by Jane Cardiff, presented by Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

All performances are free, at the new Gallery 308 at Fort Mason.
Box Office
Through January 18, 2016.

Explorers Provocateurs: Medicine on the Mountain

November 2, 2015

I was fortunate enough to be invited along yesterday on the most recent San Francisco Explorer Club’s occasional field trips, this one to Mount Diablo for an informal “Field Medicine” tutorial by the inimitable Dr. Paul Freitas.

The doc himself has been medico-proper on several Quark expeditions to the Antarctic, and is quite versed in the ad hoc treatment of sprains and breaks and more serious trauama resulting from falls, in the careful administration of field diagnosis of the un- or barely-conscious. He was joined in this sharing of arcane knowledge by Von Hurson, EMT and snow-rescue maven extraordinaire.

En route we had a number of staged accidents, designed to demonstrate the various uses of duct tape (splints), climbing rope (emergency carry equipment), blankets and outwear (drafted into stretcher use), enhanced with a brief but significant lesson in what to say and do to the injured party and more importantly what not to do until you are sure that the accident has not resulted in a broken neck or back.

This brief refresher on boy scout first aid learned—well, a few decades back—was a sobering lesson on “being prepared.” Often this means more than thinking ahead (have you prepared your trek-kit?). Being prepared to improvise with the materials at hand may well prove to be more important. This is a life-lesson worth adopting for whatever endeavor you may take on.

Dr. Paul’s resume of notable field events include the rescue of a foolhardy man fallen into and stuck in the V 24 feet down an Antarctic crevasse, and the hypodermic draining of fluid from around a distressed heart in a makeshift OR on a sea-tossed ship.

For us, a picnic and some shared stories. These explorers, what a curious band they are.

Richard III: The man who would be King at Marin Shakespeare

September 17, 2015

From the moment he appears on the stage Richard will be king. To attain that end he will stop at nothing. He sees himself a victim, cast aside by all the world for the physical deformities, the short stature and hunchback and withered arm, that were his from birth through no fault of his own. He does not see that he has been shunned for other reasons also—his embittered outlook, his unabashedly criminal impulses.

This is Richard. Aidan O’Reilly IS Richard. From his opening soliloquy, faultlessly delivered with just the right blend of pathos and ambition, he lifts this complex character from a mere character of unredeemed villainy, into something more human. Or so it seems, sometimes, until the repetitions of Richard’s deceit on one of his potential foes—Anne (Livia Demarchi), the widow of his first murder—and then another and another, show in ever greater detail the depth of his depravity.

Richard is given to long ruminations on his plans, sometimes shared with others, to assassinate every potential heir to the throne, until there is no one left to stand in his way.

Anne’s husband and her father-in-law were only the first to go. The Duke of Clarence (Nick Sholley), is next, slain in a bloody knifing by a pair of conflicted thugs who offer the only bit of comedy to appear in this staging. Edward dies of grief, leaving behind Elizabeth (Elena Wright) his widow with two young sons—young actors Patrick Ewart and Carl Robinett proving very accomplished in these roles.

There follows a succession of deceits, and murders, some offstage, some in full view. Richard does not intend to hide much. The empty throne beckons to him. Seductions abound, and not only those intended to beget his own heirs from the wombs of the widows of those he has slain. Richard enlists anyone he can to carry out the bloody deeds he plans. Buckingham, powerful lord at court falls completely for his slimy charms and becomes his ally in deceit, failing to see that he will himself one day fall victim to that same deceit. On Richard’s orders Tyrell (Michael Shaeffer in a second role) murders Elizabeth’s boys and the last remaining heirs to the throne, then breaks down before us under the enormity of his crime.

The list of his crimes is endless. With his “me-against-the-world” mindset, seduction is the only tool that Richard has, and he manages to sway almost everyone he encounters in his rise to power. A bribe secures the support of the Lord Mayor of London; Richard’s duplicity engages the church in a show of humility. In a long and mesmerizing moment between Richard and Elizabeth, he almost succeeds in convincing her that in his hands her own daughter, and England will be safe. It is all a lie. Yet when Richard cries out “There is no creature loves me!” we see a fleeting glimpse of the tortured soul that has begotten all this torture. In a stunning scene, he is haunted by all the ghosts of those he has betrayed and slain. In the end, he lies defeated, another bloody corpse on the field of battle he has created.

Ably directed by Robert Currier, to bring out glimpses of humanity amid all the horror of Richard’s mercifully brief reign. Costumes by Abra Berman justapose Richard’s aggressive contemporary military garb with Elizabethan court finery.

Through September 27, 2015

Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheater, 890 Belle Ave, San Rafael, CA 94901

Box Office: (415) 499-4485

City Life for the underprivileged, then and (of course) now

August 31, 2015

–from “Tono-Bungay” by H. G. Wells (1909)–

“It is a foolish community that can house whole classes, useful and helpful, honest and loyal classes, in such squalidly unsuitable dwellings. It is by not means the social economy it seems, to use up old women’s savings and inexperience in order to meet the landlord’s demands. But anyone who doubts this thing is going on right up to today need only to spend and afternoon in hunting for lodgings in any of the regions of San Francisco I have named.”

[Wells actually refers to London, not San Francisco. His year is 1909, but his words speak absolute truth today in 2015, when landlords with ruthless efficiency are raising rents without mercy, and driving the working and artisan class out of the city. In the economics of class and rentals, nothing has changed in all those years.]

Collaboration: There’s more to it than you think.

August 25, 2015

A single word–collaboration–and its Webster’s definition, cannot possible encompass the width and breadth of possibilities, especially in a real-time joint writing project undertaken by two writers on two continents with widely divergent backgrounds.

The project came to be under unique circumstances, a conference of like-minded individuals sharing a love and fascination with Antarctic history. A brief four days in Scotland, attended by sixty or so from around the world. I took notes during the opening introductions, to make sure I had a chance to talk with everyone with whom I shared a more detailed interest.

Brad Borkan introduced himself, with a few words about his desire to talk with those who shared his interest in decision-making under pressure, in extreme environments. In Antarctica. Later I made sure we had a chance to chat. That conversation led to another and another, and over the course of the few days we all spent in Craobh Haven, Brad and I cooked up a plan to write a book together.

Four months have passed. We have the overall structure of the book, an introduction and a couple of chapters, a plan to get it all before an agent and then a publisher. We communicate by email and the occasional skype and telephone conversation.

Now, the point about collaboration: we have a similar dedication to the goal. It does involve a good bit of work, this writing and critiquing, scheduling the talks, responding to the insights and queries, but it is evident from this long-distance collaboration, that we are each devoting an approximately equal measure of energy and time. And desire to see the project through.

This between two people who, before their chance meeting, did not know each other.

Will the project take hold, find its agent and publisher, find its way to the bookshelves of business and airport retailers? That remains to be seen, of course.

But the process is immensely rewarding.

Mozart (and others old and new) in the Woods: Monteux School, July 2015

July 16, 2015

Monteux 7.12.15
Classical music, chamber and orchestra, flutes and violins, a long and lovely sustain.
Big green barn, huge glass windows with the woods outside, birdsong, starlight.

Same time, same place. July 2015, the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Muscians in the hamlet of Hancock, Maine.

There is probably no place quite like this anywhere else in the world, likewise no musical experience to match its unique combination of the formal and the informal, of carefully formatted complex musical performance and the natural forested auditorium at the end of a gravel road. Not at the end of the world, mind you. The villages and the town of Ellsworth provide a potential audience of thousands within a half-hour’s drive. Many of whom could easily fill the 400 or so folding seats in this wonderfully intimate auditorium. Too bad for them, that they missed the absolutely stunning performances given at the most recent of the weekly edition of “Wednesdays at Monteux” July 15.

Unlike the Sunday Symphony Concerts with full 40-piece orchestra, Wednesday’s are smaller productions, solos and chamber ensembles. The music is chosen by the student performers themselves, ordered from the music lending library, rehearsed once or twice only, and then performed. So great is the professionalism on display here, one would not know just by watching and listening that these are “students” of the craft. Except perhaps by their youth and the exceptional vigor with which they approach their art.

Rather, attending one of the Monteux concerts is much like having a private concert for friends in your living room. With a program of the finest, most exciting compositions ever written over the span of centuries, put on by some of the most talented musicians you are ever likely to encounter in any concert hall, anywhere in the world. All in an unadorned auditorium where no member audience is farther from the conductor than fifty feet, where the movements and facial expressions of the musicians are in full view and close enough to read.

Last night’s program included six pieces spanning the centuries from Mozart to just-composed new work, no less than three of which earned standing ovations from an appreciative audience. Among these were Vivian Balzat’s violin suite “Archipelago Suite: The Kermadec Islands” performed by the virtuoso Allion Salvador, in its northern hemisphere premiere. The piece, evocative of these remote Pacific Islands, called to mind birdlife and haunting isolation, was so lovely I wished for a recording to listen again and again, so new there is none to be had. Yet. Salvador took the stage again, with violinist Christopher Kim and pianist Jonathan Spatola-Knoll, where the two violins practically set the stage on fire with the lightning stroke finger work demanded by Pablo de Sarasate’s “Navarra, Op. 33.”

The program included a Schulhoff “Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Contrabass,” Anthony Plog’s “Four Sketches for Brass Quintet,” Yiwen Shen’s “Four Chinese Brush Paintings” in its second-ever performance, each remarkable in its own right.

Aaron Copland’s “Suite from Appalachian Spring” in its original version for thirteen instruments closed the show. You may be familiar with this piece, but you will never have heard it quite so clearly and passionately as it was played last night. That final, fading note, filled the hall with its purity, and brought a tear to more than one eye with its stunning beauty. And when it had faded away the audience leapt to its feet for one final, thunderous ovation. All of this in a concert hall so small, so informal, that each and every note seems to be played for you alone.

There were too many empty seats last night. The hall fills to overflowing for the orchestra pops concerts where the music is familiar, but the real magic is to be found in the unfamiliar, the new, the seldom performed. The concerts at Monteux are unlike any to be witnessed anywhere. For those lucky enough to be in this part of Maine in the summer, they are not to be missed.

You have a few more opportunities to take in for 2015—Wednesday July 22, and Sundays July 19 and 26—and a whole season to plan for in the next. All concerts at 7:30 p.m.

Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians
2015 Schedule of Concerts
P. O. Box 457, Hancock ME 04640
Tel. 207-422-3280

T. E. Lawrence: “The divided selves said nothing. . . .”

June 5, 2015

For all those—soldiers, caregivers, lost explorers, strivers of all stripes who feel overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding them—these words from T. E. Lawrence, better know these days as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — In this passage, he is fevered, retreating from a failed attempt, half in his own mind and half without:

“Now I found myself dividing into parts. There was one which went on riding wisely, sparing or helping every pace of the wearied camel. Another hovering above and to the right bent down curiously, and asked what the flesh was doing. The flesh gave no answer, for, indeed, it was conscious only of a ruling impulse to keep on and on; but a third garrulous one talked and wondered, critical of the body’s self-inflicted labour, and contemptuous of the reason for the effort. . . .

“This spent body toiled on doggedly and took no heed, quite rightly, for the divided selves said nothing I was not capable of thinking in cold blood; they were all my natives.”

For each of us, at times life will become so hard we will wonder why we bother to keep on at it. The wondering is natural. In looking for reasons to keep on, we can look inward. We may, like Lawrence, find no reasons worthy of the name. We must, like him, understand that such questioning is only a part of the whole. It is to honor the other parts that we keep on.

The words above are quoted from T. E. Lawrence, from his book “Revolt in the Desert.”


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